Science is by its nature sceptical: scientists interrogate information and only on repeated investigation does data become science. The science of climate change has been established through numerous high-profile studies (IPCC, NOAA, Nasa) and was even verified by the sceptic-led Best report. In 2009 one of the world’s leading medical journals, the Lancet, declared climate change “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”. Denying the links between greenhouse gas emissions and man-made climate change is akin to denying the links between HIV/Aids and unprotected sex, smoking and lung cancer, or alcohol consumption and liver disease. In each of these cases, well-funded deniers have had to be exposed and confronted before appropriate health-promoting legislation was put in place.
Okay. Let us agree, you shouldn’t ‘deny the links’ between causes and their known effects. But what if people claim that if you have unprotected sex you will get HIV? What if people claim that, as soon as you have just one puff on a cigarette you will get lung cancer? And what if people started claiming that, the moment you took a sip of beer, wine or cider, your liver simply melted? What then?
And what if someone said that this was so much nonsense? What if he or she suggested that you actually have to drink or smoke quite a lot to suffer illness, and that although one could theoretically have unprotected sex just once and contract HIV, it’s very very very unlikely? Would he or she be ‘denying the links’ between such effects and their causes? Shouldn’t we start to ask questions about the nature of the ‘links’ between causes and effects? And shouldn’t we ask questions about the extent to which they are stated?
‘Links’ between causes and effects have magnitude. It is incumbent on those wishing to bring those ‘links’ to bear over public policy to enumerate them. But often, risk becomes politicised. Any non-zero amount of risk becomes, in the official jargon ‘unacceptable’. ‘One death is too many’, and so on. Crusaders elevate themselves on the basis that ‘if I can save just one life, then my work is done’. This is how proportion is lost, and how the ‘links’ between causes and their effects get amplified from weak, to huge. Theoretical risk becomes immanent danger.
And just as it ought to be incumbent on those wishing to capitalise on risks for professional and political gain to enumerate risk, it should be incumbent on them to explain how a cheque for £50,000 represents a donation to a ‘well-funded denier’. Yes, this is all about the FOIA to the Charities Commission about the Global Warming Policy Foundation. The letter continues…
The Climate and Health Council supports Nasa scientist James Hansen as he joins the campaign to uncover secret funders bankrolling climate sceptic Nigel Lawson and his lobbying think-tank (Climate experts back unveiling of Lawson thinktank donor, 23 January). The public may finally discover who is secretly influencing UK climate policy – contrary to scientific consensus – today (27 January), when the Information Rights Tribunal hears this key freedom of information case. Some anti-climate lobbyists routinely misrepresent and cast doubt on the work of climate scientists. Although Lawson and his Global Warming Policy Foundation have been discredited and attacked by numerous scientists and senior politicians, his thinktank continues to receive significant coverage, wrongfully distorting the public and policy debate over climate change.
What is the extent to which the GWPF has ‘influenced policy’, as the letter’s authors claim? Nothing.
At every leap in the argument made by the authors, all proportion is lost. All ‘links’ between causes and effect are infinitely amplified, such that any amount of CO2 is indistinguishable from total Thermageddon. A cheque for sufficient money to employ someone on a decent wage for a year becomes the total failure of the UK’s climate policy. Never mind that, as I pointed out in the previous post, there are £billions available for the PR message in the other direction. £50,000 is all that it takes to completely subvert all policy-making in the UK. And it gets worse…
Perverting the course of evidence-based policy…
What?! When was there ever a ‘course of evidence-based policy’, such that it could be ‘perverted’? The complaint clearly borrows from the offence of ‘perverting the course of justice‘, but it has no analogue in policy-making. Having an opinion and wishing to intervene in a debate about policy might qualify as ‘perverting the course of evidence-based policy’. And as we have seen, the difference between opinions amounts to the difference between having a sense of proportion and not having one at all. And it is those without who seem, somewhat ironically, to be complaining about ‘perverting’ ‘evidence-based policy’. All the more an irony, that this climate inquisition are assembled from some leading UK scientific institutions.
… on climate-change adaptation and mitigation damages our health resilience, our economic prosperity and our environmental stability. Transparency around climate-sceptic funders is essential. We support freedom of information to reveal those deliberately preventing the UK’s sustainable future.
Dr Fiona Godlee Editor-in-chief, British Medical Journal
Dr. Richard Horton Editor-in-Chief, The Lancet
Professor Ian Roberts Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health
Professor Hugh Montgomery Professor of Intensive Care Medicine
Professor Anthony Costello Professor of International Child Health
Rachel Stancliffe Director, Centre for Sustainable Healthcare
Dr. Robin Stott Co-chair, Climate and Health Council
Maya Tickell-Painter Director, Medsin Healthy Planet Campaign
A few of these names are familiar. Ian Roberts, for example, was the subject of one of the first posts on this blog, back in 2007. He had argued in the New Scientist that the obesity epidemic is aggravating global warming.
We tend to think of obesity only as a public-health problem, but many of its causes overlap with those of global warming. Car dependence and labour-saving devices have cut the energy people expend as they go about their lives, at the same time increasing the amount of fossil fuel they burn. It’s no coincidence that obesity is most prevalent in the US, where per capita carbon emissions exceed those of any other major nation, and it is becoming clear that obese people are having a direct impact on the climate.
Roberts didn’t make it clear how it was ‘clear’ that ‘obese people are having a direct impact on the climate’, nor what the climatic effects of fat people were supposed to be.
Robert’s claims are sheer bullshit, of course, and the cost of allowing such bullshit to flow so readily from respected scientific institutions for the service of political ideas will be that science will ultimately undermine its own authority. If you think I over-state the point, examine the liberties that Roberts has taken with science so far in order to win a political debate.
When all that the best clinical minds can offer is the political idea that people’s desire for food and labour-saving devices (ie, higher standards of living) are expressions of a kind of false consciousness, small wonder that people complain about ‘health fascism’. Roberts has such contempt for the public that he assumes to know their political and material interests better than they do, and pretends that it is ‘capitalism wot makes ‘em do it’… that people are too fat headed to know what to eat.
It must be lean times at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, because this poverty-stricken argument is so bloated, it needs four bandwagons to wheel it onto the pages of the New Scientist: obesity, global warming, anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism. All that’s missing is a photo of a polar bear perched on a dwindling ice floe.
The conceit of the scientists — if that is what they really are — who have put their names under the letter to the Guardian is that their opinions, their prejudices, their politics are ‘science’. This is obvious, because not only do they fail to give proportion to their arguments, they also completely fail to identify what it is that the GWPF have argued that is so objectionable. It is merely the fact that the GWPF exists to scrutinise climate policy at all that bothers them. And this fact, when seen alongside the fact that the GWPF hasn’t influenced policy reveals the real object of their panic…
The GWPF has pricked the consciousness of some of the public, and given institutional credibility to the cause of policy-scepticism. Public opinion, however, has not had any real influence over climate and energy policy. Indeed, the point of supranational institutions such as the UNFCC process, the UN itself, and the EU also, is to overcome the problems of domestic politics. But the attempt to build international agreements has failed. (And that failure has nothing to do with either public opinion, or the GWPF). What the signatures beneath the letter to the Guardian have in common is that the belong to individuals heavily invested in public health and climate bureaucracies, whose influence is increasingly justified on the basis that it will mitigate an inevitable disaster. Such a disaster is epitomised by Roberts: climate and obesity — two of the biggest scare stories out there.
And if you don’t believe me about the scale of this absurd phenomenon, consider this BBC article today:
Miliband attacks Cameron over chocolate oranges
Ed Miliband has attacked David Cameron for failing to stop the sale of cut-price Chocolate Oranges – something the PM complained about in opposition.
In 2006, Mr Cameron criticised WH Smith for discounting chocolate rather than fruit despite the UK’s obesity crisis.
But the Labour leader told The House magazine the situation had not changed.
“If he can’t sort out the chocolate orange, he’s not going to sort out the train companies, the energy companies, the banks, is he?” Mr Miliband said.
With politicians like these, is it any wonder that public health bureaucrats and climate change fear-mongers are in the ascendant? There is a compact between them, in which the mediocrity of the former is offset by the scientific authority of the latters. The cost is democracy. The letter, entirely devoid of a scientific argument, uses scientific authority to make a political argument, and to close down debate. The substance of the relationship between these pseudo-scientists and their backers needs to be exposed.